Attending a performance of Cabaret in 2014, Shia LaBeouf caused a ruckus mid-show, chain-smoking cigarettes while drunkenly harassing actors until the police arrived to haul him away. He was released the day after. All stayed quiet on the LaBeouf front until he sought out a 12-step program in 2016; a year later his treatment proved for naught in another instance of public drunkenness, leading to his enrollment in rehab.
A brief history of LaBeouf is necessary for contextualizing his work in 2019, starring in Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s road trip film The Peanut Butter Falcon and Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy. LaBeouf wrote the latter’s screenplay himself, an attempt to reckon with his upbringing while exorcising his childhood demons. Life with Papa LaBeouf, real name Jeffrey Craig, was fraught, as Honey Boy tells it: Jeff, dubbed “James” in the film and played by LaBeouf himself, treated Shia, dubbed “Otis” and played by Noah Jupe, as both his meal ticket and a repository for his macho animus. A Vietnam vet from a broken home who suffers from PTSD, James is as much a product of parentage as Otis; as Honey Boy unfolds, he transfers that burden to Otis on a rollercoaster combination of negligence, violence and what passes as love.
James is everything a boy wants from his father: He’s adventurous, fun, brimming with stories, a blend of whimsy and macho brio that’s innately appealing to malleable and budding minds. Excusing physical and mental abuse is easy when the person doing the violence cuts a larger-than-life figure. James’ constant chatter-stream, spent spinning tall tales, bragging and passing down paternal advice to Otis (whether wanted or not), connects him to Otis like a remora to a fledgling shark, except that rather than ward off parasites, James acts like one himself; without Otis, he’d starve. They both know it, a truth that James gamely denies. Worse still, he saps Otis’ wellbeing with manly bravado and occasional battering.
Har’el introduces audiences to adult Otis (Lucas Hedges) shooting a blockbuster, getting wasted in his trailer, crashing his car, and, as LaBeouf did in 2014 and 2017, berating arresting police officers when they arrive on the scene. This is Honey Boy’s most logical starting place: establishing the character’s exterior before excavating his interior. The purpose of LaBeouf’s narrative is to peel the layers of what culture refers to as “toxic masculinity,” once a phrase used to describe very specific brutal male behavior, now a qualifier for any actions men take that are either unflattering or unfashionable. Har’el wants viewers to see Otis as they saw LaBeouf in headlines and on TMZ. She has to for Honey Boy to function.
At the center of 20-something Otis, whose raving, intoxicated entitlement ignites LaBeouf’s plot, rests adolescent Otis, whose impressionable mind is in the hands of a negative male influence. Neither Har’el nor LaBeouf pardon adult Otis’ infractions or James’ cruelty: Honey Boy holds them accountable through its depictions of treatment, where Otis clashes with his doctor (Laura San Giacomo) during their therapy sessions. Immune to his anger and mockery of the process, she determinedly keeps Otis on the hook. She’s sympathetic for the boy trapped within the man, and sympathetic for the man, too, but Har’el and LaBeouf understand that accepting personal responsibility is key to scrubbing every trace of Otis’ inherited toxicity.
As Honey Boy cuts from past to present, the colorful and tender moments of Otis’ boyhood—especially the innocent love that blooms between him and the teenage girl who lives in a motel room across the lot from his (played by FKA twigs)—serve as a reminder of what curing toxicity bestows: The freedom to show the tenderness he shares with the shy girl and which James vehemently discourages (out of, admittedly, his own perverted desire to fuck her). The film suggests that dousing Otis’ capacity for empathy is the greatest failure of James’ parenting, as empathy’s absence facilitates the appalling late-stage outbursts that supply Honey Boy its prologue.
More importantly, it realizes that to rob men of their empathy requires pressure applied by outside forces, a lesson The Peanut Butter Falcon knows well. Here, LaBeouf plays Tyler, a North Carolina fisherman wrestling with grief and guilt: His brother, Mark (John Bernthal), died prior to the movie’s events, in a car accident eventually revealed to be Tyler’s fault. Worse, he’s beefing with competing fishermen Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (Yelawolf), who beat him down in the dirt over a matter of stolen crab traps. Tyler retaliates by burning their gear and taking a powder, where he runs into Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down syndrome fleeing from the retirement home where he’s kept, who dreams of becoming a professional wrestler. Tyler, disgruntled at first by his new company, takes a shine to Zak and adopts him as a surrogate brother.
Beneath his scratchy beard, ragged clothing, and grime-streaked exterior, Tyler’s a good man, better than good, even. He respects Zak’s humanity to an extent that his custodian, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), doesn’t: Where she sees a child in need of constant care and supervision, he sees a grown man with agency enough to make decisions about how he should live his life. But Tyler’s goodness is kept hemmed in by the threat of prototypical macho violence. Duncan and Ratboy are his opposites, brutes who solve problems at the business end of fists and tire irons. If The Peanut Butter Falcon bothered being overtly political, they’d probably tell Tyler to pull himself up by his bootstraps instead of scabbing off of them. They might have a point, at least as far as theft is concerned, but it’s their approach to making that point that’s venomous.
It’s little wonder that Tyler goes on the lam. He’s escaping from violence, of course, but he’s also trying to get away from the Mark-sized hole in his life, representing his only source of empathy and warmth before tragedy snatched it from him. Without that, he’s spiritually and financially destitute. He’s able to overcome the former by bonding with Zak. It’s through their companionship, and Zak’s immense capacity for compassion, that Tyler is redeemed, if not spared. Not that The Peanut Butter Falcon judges Tyler for torching Duncan and Ratboy’s equipment—they’re tough guy assholes, after all—but this is a misdeed, and his misdeed ultimately catches up to him (and puts him in the hospital).
This is, surprisingly, okay. Zak can’t save Tyler from his enemies, but he does save him from absorption into the harsh masculine culture embodied by Duncan, just as Otis, through therapy, is able to escape those same clutches, and just as LaBeouf did through his own therapy and through cathartic filmmaking. His journey is ongoing, but LaBeouf’s gradual transformation from problem child actor to a voice speaking out against noxious male bullshit is an object lesson for a decade defined by it.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.